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Jewish history in Romania goes back to the 4th century. It is believed that Jews settled there in earliest times, even before the Roman conquest of Dacia, now Transylvania. In 397 C.E., the Roman emperor issued a decree granting protection to Jewish settlers and their synagogues in Dacia. Thereafter, the fate of the Jews in the region is unknown until the early Middle Ages, when, in the 8th and 9th centuries the khazars conquered the region. Some 300 years later, the famous traveler, Benjamin of Tudela, told of a Jewish colony in Wallachia. During the Middle Ages, the country was divided into small principalities. In most of them, Jews suffered bitter persecution. Yet they were pioneers in commerce and industry and were among the first to settle in the city of Bucharest. Some of the local rulers recognized the contribution of Jews to the welfare of the country, and occasionally even encouraged them to settle in their territories. Usually, however, treatment of Jews was inhuman and cruel. The Cossack uprising in 1648 spread from the Ukraine to Moldavia, causing suffering along the way. Nevertheless, the following century saw a rise in the Jewish population in both Romanian provinces of Wallachia and Moldavia.

After the tumultuous Turkish rule, the two provinces were united to form an independent state in 1859. This independence was recognized by the Congress of Berlin in 1878. According to the treaty signed at the Congress, Romania was obligated to grant full civil and political fights to all nationalities, including Jews. The government, however, failed to live up to the treaty. Economic as well as educational restrictions and attacks against Jews were frequent. At the end of the 19th century, constant persecution forced many to emigrate to the U.S. Some also settled in Palestine where they founded the colonies of Rosh Pinah and Zikhron Yaakov.

Following World War I, discrimination and antisemitic riots continued and spread to large Jewish communities in Bessarabia and Bukovina, which had been annexed by Romania. A strong antisemitic campaign was carried on by the Iron Guard party. During World War II, the anti-Jewish groups cooperated with the Nazis in the extermination of Jews. Only about half of Romanian Jewry survived the slaughter; some succeeded in fleeing the country and settled in Palestine. More than 200,000 Jews remained. In 2007, the Jewish population was estimated at fewer than 7,000. The community has produced outstanding people, such as scholars Moses Gaster and Solomon Schechter and the contemporary Yiddish poet Itzik Manger. Jews were permitted to emigrate to Israel in 1958-59, but Arab political pressure has slowed down the process.

The Jewish community of Rome is the oldest in Europe, dating back at least to 180 B.C.E., and is also the one in which Jews have lived most continuously (with minor interruptions) to this day. Their numbers, fairly large in Maccabean times, were increased in 70 C.E., when Titus and his Roman Legions defeated Judea and burned the Second Temple. He brought many Jewish captives to Rome, and in his train were King Agrippa II, Princess Berenice, and the historian Josephus. After the defeat of the Bar Kokhba rebellion in 135 C.E., captives and refugees again increased the Jewish population of Rome.

Judea may have been defeated, but Judaism was not. Conversions of Romans to Judaism must have been fairly widespread, because in 204 such conversions were prohibited by law. On the whole, Jews were persecuted less in Rome than elsewhere. About 212 to 217 C.E., Judaism was recognized as a religio licita, a legal religion. In 590, the Pope confirmed the Jewish rights. In 855, all Jews were ordered to leave Italy, but evidently this order was not strictly enforced, because three years later, special clothing was introduced to identify Jews. The ebb and flow of alternate persecution and protection of Jews continued through the centuries. In 1021, Jews were persecuted; but between 1058 and 1061, the Pope opposed their compulsory baptism. In 1215, Jews had to wear a special badge; only two decades later, a Papal decree gave Jews protection. In this same 13th century, the power of the Inquisition was extended, but within a few years, another Papal decree denounced blood accusations as false. During the first half of the 16th century, popes and cardinals befriended Jews, yet in 1555, forced them to live in a ghetto and wear the “Jewish badge” to distinguish them from non-Jews. Jews were also barred from many trades.

Through it all, Jewish life went on, and Roman Jewry produced its share of great scholars. In the 11th century, Nathan Ben Yechiel compiled the Arukh, an encyclopedic work on Talmud vocabulary. Immanuel of Rome (ca. 1270-1330), writing under the influence of Dante, left a colorful picture of Jewish life in 14th-century Italy. A Jewish printing press established in 1545 flourished. In 1581, the Inquisition was still active, and in 1784, a compulsory baptism ordinance was enforced.

In the 19th century, the Jews no longer submitted passively to persecution. When their rights as citizens, proclaimed in 1809, were later denied them again, they revolted and tore down the ghetto walls in 1829. Finally, in 1849, the Assembly granted them full civic rights. From then on, anti-Jewish manifestations diminished and the Jewish Ernesto Nathan became mayor of the city in 1907.

After World War I, when Mussolini’s Fascist regime came to power, Jews remained undisturbed. However, under Nazi pressure, racist doctrines were adopted. When German troops occupied the country toward the end of World War II, Rome’s Jewish community suffered, although they found some protection among their neighbors. In 2006, there were about 15,000 Jews in Rome. A new community center and school building show a renewed civic and educational effort, while an active Zionist organization is in close contact with the Jews of Israel.

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